A Shaligram is Born – Part 2

This second part on the birth of Shaligrams is meant to briefly demonstrate the concrete links between the sacred contexts of Shaligram veneration and the actual practices devotees most commonly carry out. In other words, given the mythic histories of Shaligrams (previous post), how does one then actually experience the birth of a Shaligram and how do practitioners prepare them for ritual use in their homes and communities?

Puja is, first and foremost, the main method for venerating Shaligrams. Initial pujas are generally conducted when a Shaligram is born out of Kali Gandaki (often, right on the river bank using the water of the river to welcome them into their new families) and may be performed again and again over the course of the Shaligram’s lifetime. It is also common to include Shaligrams during pujas held for the births of children as well as at weddings and funerals or any other instance of a meaningful or profound change in an individual’s or family’s life. Pujas specific to Shaligrams are also most often performed during the festival celebrating Tulsi Vivah; the marriage of Tulsi and Shaligram (Vishnu).

The first puja for a Shaligram is almost always done as a welcome for them to their new home or temple following their birth and their long travels, just as puja is done for honored guests and great teachers. Subsequent pujas after that are much the same as any other kind of ritual care for a household’s deities and very commonly mirror the typical activities of daily life, such as mealtimes, bedtimes, bathing, and morning awakening. The final puja is then done to honor the passing of the dead, where a particularly important Shaligram may accompany the body of a deceased loved one into the cremation fire and carry their spirit into the presence of the Divine before being reborn back into the world (out of the river once again) in their place. Conversely, any Shaligram which is passed down/inherited and not sent to the funeral pyre will have a similar welcoming puja carried out, as it is once again a new member of a new family. And thus, Shaligrams continue to live out multiple karmic lives, returning again and again into the material world, so that they may guide souls along the path to moksha.

However, as far as religious stricture goes, it is important to note that there is no central Scriptural authority detailing the worship of Shaligrams in either Hinduism or Buddhism. Instead, most Shaligram practitioners take a variety of texts to be authoritative when it comes to Shaligram worship; be they a combination of the Vedas, Puranas, Shastras, or other commentaries. The scriptural rules which govern Shaligram veneration also do not establish a set of rigid boundaries delineating the correct performance of rituals for Shaligrams. Rather, they speak of Shaligrams in more general terms and leave many of the specifics up to long-standing oral traditions or other ritual descriptions. As such, real Shaligram practices function like the banks of a wide riverbed, much like the Kali Gandaki itself, within which streams of traditional and practical variation may appear, meander, and merge as they move through time and space. While the river may then slow to a trickle or come flooding out of the mountains, break up or reconverge, or even occasionally overflow its banks, it nevertheless carries onward in whatever way is necessary for the moment.

Lastly, there is no standardized doctrinal consensus among Shaligram practitioners as a whole, and specific individuals may perform or participate in Shaligram rituals reflective of any range of traditions, be they Buddhist, Hindu, animist, specific to one’s guru lineage, or related to a local deity or practice-style. Even secular, agnostic, and scientific atheists have been known to take part in Shaligram ritual veneration. But, for the most part, Shaligram devotees tend to acknowledge that Shaligram worship follows a few short, easily definable, steps.

Preparation:

As self-manifest deities, Shaligram require no rites of invocation, such as the prana pratistha. When they arrive home, they are greeted as living deities and are usually kept in a common section of the household, wherein they are able to view and participate in the normal activities of the family.

An active Shaligram within a household is usually cleaned with clear water to begin with, and then rubbed with oil to keep them smooth and unblemished. This oil can be from any number of sources but is usually made from sandalwood, flower extracts, or incense. Essential oils derived from fragrant plants are especially popular for this purpose.

Shaligrams then reside in whatever prepared puja mandir, platform, or shelf that has been set aside for them. Many devotees also provide them with small pillows or seats to rest on, crowns or clothing as befits other murti in the household, or any other small items they wish to offer or which may be specific to the Shaligram deity present (i.e., sweets for Krishna or coins for Lakshmi).

The two main offerings generally considered to be vital to Shaligram practice, however, are water and tulsi. Pilgrims to Mustang will often return with water taken directly from the Kali Gandaki for this purpose, but Ganga Jal also works well or any other purified water in the event that none other is available. Tulsi can be grown in the home (and often is) or purchased from Indian groceries if one’s climate is not suitable for growing.

Puja

Krishna Shaligram from Vrindavan

Shaligrams are typically worshipped without any prathisthana (installation ritual; as is done while installing man-made deity icons), since Vishnu is already present in the Shaligram of his free will as a revelation to the devotees. The Śālagrāma-Kosha enumerates this by explaining that: “In the worship of Salagrama, no initiation is required; there is no special hymnology or specific procedure of worship, nor any need for a qualified priest or master of ceremonies. Worshipped anyhow, it will bestow the benefits; and there is no error of any kind.”

Note: In South India, it is more common for Shaligrams to be put away in a box or puja mandir while not actively engaged in ritual, while in North India and Nepal, Shaligrams tend to remain in the open.

Sri Shaligram Shila Stotram (Prayer)

(Given by Krishna to Yudhishthira, Bhagavad-Gita)

Yudhistiro Uvacha 

King Yudhistira asked 

“Shree Dev Dev devesa Devarchanamutamam 
Tat sarbam srotaumichhami Bruhime Purushotamam / 1/ 


My dear Supreme Lordship Purushotam, I request you know the significance of the Shaligram shila

Shree Bhagavan Uvacha – The Lord Replied 

“Gandakyam Chotare Tire Girirajshchya Dakshine 
Das Yojan Vistirnam Mahachhetra Vasundhara //2// 
“Saligramo Vabet Devo Devi Dwara Bati Vabet 
Uvayo Sangamo Yatra Mutistratrana Sansaya //3// 
“Saligramo Sila Yatra Yatra dwara Bati Sila 
Uvayo Sangamo Yatra Mutistratrana Sansaya //4//
 

The mountains known as the Himalaya are situated on the bank of river Gandaki. In the south of this Himalaya is the land where Shaligram shila appear. This is the place where Devi Dwarabati begins. This place is called by those who know, Sri Muktikshetra. 

“Ajanma Krita Papanam Prayaschitam Ya Ichati 
Saligram Silawari Paphari Namastute //5// 
“ Akal Mritu Haranam Sarvabyadhi Binasanam 
Vishu Padodakam Pitwa Shirasha Dharyamyaham //6// 
“Sankha Madhya Sthitam Toyyam Vramitam Keshavopari 
Angalagnam Manukshanam Bramha Hatya Dikam Dayat //7// 


Shaligram shilas found here are very precious and significant. These shilas are considered to be directly Lord Vishnu Himself and the person who worships or even keeps in the house or bathes the Shaligram and drinks water or pour those waters on their head, that man becomes free from all sin and it prevents from untimely death. That person becomes free from all sin and all material disease. The most feared sin of Bramahatya (killing of a Brahmin) is also washed away simply by worshiping the Shaligram. 

“Snano Dakam Piben Nityam Chakrankita Sirot Vabam 
Partkshallya Sudham Tatoyam Bramha Hatya Byapohati //8// 
“Agnistomasahasnani Vajapaya Satanicha 
Samyak Phalama Bapnoti Visnornai Vedya Vakshina //9// 


That person who does snan (bathing) of Shaligram with chakra everyday get gets rid of all sin like Bramahatya, and if he drinks such water daily gets the equal boon of a thousand havan (fire sacrifices) of Lord Vishnu. 

“Naivadyayuktam Tulsim cha Misritam Vishesta Pada Jalen Vishnu 
Yoshnati Nityam Purato Murari Prapnoti Yazya Uta Koti Pundyam //10//
 

The person, who worships Shaligram with Tulsi leaf daily, gets the boon of a million Yajna also. 

Khandita Sphutita Viina Vandi Dakdhya Tathi Va Cha 
Saligram Sialyatra Tatra Dosho Na Vidyate//11// 


Even if a Shaligram is damaged or broken, all shila are good to worship 

Namantra Pujanam Naiva Natirtham Na cha Bhabanaa 
Na stutir Na uppachars cha Saligram Silar cha ne //12// 
Bramha Hatya Dikam Papam Manobak Karya Sambhamam 
Shirgram Nachyati Tatsarvam Saligram Silrchana//13//
 

Without worship, without offering any sweets or without any pilgrims – only chanting this Shaligram mantra is enough to wash away all sins and is the fulfillment of all desire. 

“Nanabarna Mayam Chiva Nana Bhogena Vestitam 
Tathavarprasadena Laxmi Kantam Balamhayam //14// 
“Narayanorbhabo Dev Chakramadya Cha Karmana 
Tathavarprasadena Laxmi Kantam Balamhayam//15//
 

There are various kinds of size and shape of Shaligram in which Lord Vishnu is situated representing all the different incarnations. 

“Krishane Sila Taneyatra Susmam Cakram Cha Drisyate 
Saovagyam Santatim Dhatye Sarva Sakshaym Dadhaticha//16//
 

Good Luck increases and one gets satisfaction from children, and in every way in every aspect, all good enters one’s life by worshipping Shaligram black in color with little chakras

Vashu Devschya Chinhani Distwa Papai Pramuchyate 
Sridhar Sukare Bame Harivbarnatu Disyate//17// 
“Varaha Rupenam Devam Kurmangai Rapi Chinhitam 
Gopadam Tatra Dissheta Varaham Vamanam Tatha //18// 


A person who gets the chance to see the Vasudev shila, that person he became free from sins. Shreedhar, Sukar, Vamanadev, Harivarna,Varaha, Kurma and lots of other type of Shaligram are available also. Some Shaligram has marking of cow’s foot marks and some that of Narshimha Avatara (half lion half man). 

“Pitavarnam Tu Devanam Rakta Varnam Vayabhaham 
Narashinho Vawet Devo Mokshadam Cha Prakrititam//19// 
Sankha Chakra Gada Kurma Sankho Yatra Pradisyate 
Sankha Varnaschya Devanaman Vame Devaschya Lakshanam//20// 
“Damodarm Tatha Sthulam Madhya Chakram Pratisthitam 
Purna Dwarena Sankrina Pita Rekha Cha Drischyate //21// 
“Chhatrakare Vabet Rajam Vartule Cha Mahasreeya 
Chipite Cha MahaDukham Sulagretu Ranam Dhrubam//22// 


A yellowish Shaligram is as auspicious as the Lord Himself (Pitambara) but a reddish Shaligram is considered to bring fearful situations and is dangerous to worship. The sacred symbols of Shankha (conch), Chakra (disc), Gada (club), and Kurma (tortoise) are printed on the Shaligram stones. Shaligram with a Shankha (conch) sign is considered to be Vamanrup (Vamandev) of Lord Vishnu, whereas chakra in the middle is considered as Damodar Shaligram. Shaligrams of different shapes; round, umbrella shape which has white lines are also available; worshipping this kind of Shaligram gives wealth and reputation in society. Flat shaped Shaligram creates sorrow in a family and Shaligram with sharp front side creates war, fighting, and tension in family. 

“Lalate Shesha Vogastu Siropari Sukanchanam 
Chakrakanchanavarnanam VamaDevaschya Lakshnam//23// 
Vamaparbe Cha Bai Cakre Krishna Varnas tu Pingalam 
Laxinarshimhadevanam Prithak Varnastu Drisyate//24// 


Shaligrams which have a chakra around the head or in the forehead but the rest of its parts are clean and smooth is considered very auspicious and this type is to be considered as Vamandev shila. Yellowish or black in left side with a chakra is considered as Lakshmi-Narshimha shila

Lamboste Cha Dalidram Syat Pingale Hani Revacha 
Lagna Cakre Vabet Baydhir Bidare Maranamdrubam//25// 


Worshipping a long shaped shila creates poverty, and Shaligram having lagna (rising) chakra create long term chronic diseases, even death. 

Padom Dakamcha Nirmalyam Mastake Dharayet Shada 
Visnor Dristam Vakshitabyam Tulsi Jal Misritam//26// 
Kalpa Koti Sahasrani Vaikunthe Basate Sada 
Saligram Sila Vinur Hatya Koti Vinasanam//27//
 
Any person who offers a Tulasi leaf while worshipping the Shaligram gets salvation and can stay at Vaikuntha (Heaven) for a million years. 

Tasmat Sampujayet Dhyatwa Pujitam Chapi Sarvada 
Saligram Silas Trotram Yah Pathecha Dijotam//28// 
Sa Gakshet Parmam Sthanam Yatra Lokeshworo Hari 
Sarva Pap Binir Muktwa Vishnu Lokam Sa Gashati//29//
 

Therefore always worship Shaligram, and chant Shaligram Stotra which is very beneficial for mankind. We can get one a higher position on Vishnu Lok (Vaikuntha) simply by doing so. All sins will also be destroyed and it is guaranteed that one gets to Vishnulok simply from this process of worshiping the Shaligram. 

Dusovataro Devanam Prithak Varnastu Disyate 
Ipsitam Labate Rajyam Vishnu Pooja Manukramat//30// 
Kotyohi Vramhahatyanamgamyagamya Kotaya 
Ta Sarva Nasamayamti Vishu Nai Vidya Vakshanat//31// 
Vishno Pador Dakam Pitwa Koti Janmaghanasanam 
Tasma Dasta Gunam Papam Ghumou Vindupatnat//32// 


There are various types of descriptions available for Lord Vishnu’s ten primary incarnations (Dasavatara) and also the Lord’s incarnation in Sri Shaligram’s worship, the Prayer to the Shaligram and drinking the Lord’s bathing water wash away sins of million lives and one gets great prosperity, wealth and reputation through this, so everyone everywhere the Shaligram should be worshiped. 

Iti Shree Vishotara Purane Shree Saligram Sila-stotram Sumpurnam!!..

Simple Puja

The most common and most basic form of Shaligram puja is the daily simple puja, which only requires that the devotee offer water, tulsi leaves (or flowers/fruit if none available), and a short prayer to the Shaligrams each day. In many cases, the simple puja is also favored among practitioners who travel or who are actively on pilgrimage since it is possible to bring one or two important Shaligrams along and to perform the puja as a kind of morning or evening prayer even under the most difficult circumstances. In many households today, simple puja is the standard, with more elaborate pujas performed on special occasions or at certain times of year.

As a corrective to modern concerns about the potential spiritual dangers of keeping Shaligrams, many gurus also now recommend the simple puja, elaborating that it is more important to give what an individual is capable of giving in order to keep Shaligrams in the home (and the tradition alive) than the alternative of never interacting with Shaligrams at all. In other words, as one of my teachers explained, “Shaligrams are not monsters. They are here for us, to help us. If simple puja is what you can offer. Offer that. The rest will come in time, when it is time.”

Sri Vaishnava Tradition

If a Shaligram is to be formally worshipped in a temple context of the Sri Vaishnava tradition, all the details of worship must be carefully observed. Additionally, Shaligrams are also often strung together in the form of a garland using metallic casings made of silver and placed on the moolavar – the Dhruva bera (main temple deity) deity in Vaishnava temples. (108 in number representing the nine planets comprising the 27 stars and its four navamsa divisions – 27×4 = 108). Large Shaligrams (typically the larger than a man’s hand) are also routinely made into iconographic murti (Lord Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, etc.) and worshipped in temples and Vaishnava mutts.

Depending on the religious tradition in question, the ritual protocols for Shaligram worship vary considerably. However, the most commonly referenced method of Shaligram puja comes from the Sri Vaishnava tradition, where there is a more standardized procedure for the every-day worship of Shaligrams for temples, mutts, and home shrines. Generally, Shaligrams are almost always worshipped using tulsi leaves. The Yagna (Yaga) Samskaram also prescribes procedures for the Bhagavad Aradhana (Aradhana is a method of worship, a Sanskrit word meaning an act of glorifying God or a person) of Sriman Narayana -Vishnu or His manifest form of Shaligrams.

There are two forms of Aradhana: Bahya (External) and Manasika (Internal). Shaligram puja in a temple context usually begins when the attendant pujari or brahmacharya initiates the Samskaram through Sanskrit verses. The following protocol is translated into English by Anand K. Karalapakkam:

“After Achamanam (sipping and swallowing water two or three times during which the twenty-four names of Vishnu are repeated), wearing Oordhvapundram, prostrating to the Lord (Sriman Narayana), sit in a seat. After pranayamam (yogic control of the vital breath), perform japam (repetition of Lord’s name) with Dhyana slokas (divine hymns-Ashtakshara, etc). Later, worship the Lord Sriman Narayana residing in one’s heart (Manasika Aradhana). Then with water from the vessel placed left of Sriman Narayana (Shaligram), sprinkle water on flowers and other materials for worship and vessels for arghyam (offering of rice, etc.), padyam (offering of water for washing the feet), etc. From water in an arghya vessel, sprinkle water on flowers etc. (for worship) and also on yourself.”

“After welcoming the Lord, offer arghyam, padyam; Achamaniam and give Abisheka (ritualistic bath). Then offer cloth, Yajno Pavitha (sacred thread), sandal paste, flower, incense, and light, in that order. Offer Achamana, honey and again Achamana. Later offer food comprising of pudding, rice, vegetables, water, pan-betel etc. After prostration, restoring status quo is the procedure of worship of Vishnu.”

Thus, the sishya (disciple) learn to perform Bhagavad Aradhana (prayer of the divine) to Sriman Narayana’s archa-avatara as a Shaligram. Additionally, since the food a Sri Vaishnava eats should only consist of the remnants of food offered to Sriman Narayan, Saligrama Aradhana is considered to be especially important. Additionally, among Sri Vaishnavas, the Saligrama Aradhana is typically performed only by the male members of the upper three varnas (Brahaman, Kshatriya and Vaishya). In this tradition, women are prohibited from touching or performing Aradhana of a Shaligram, though this prohibition is not universally shared. However, even in these cases, women have an important role of assisting the performance of the ritual by making the necessary preparations for the worship including cooking the food for offerings to the deity. Women may also be responsible for arrangements in terms of preparing food, gathering and making flower garlands, or gathering and directing the participants as the ritual progresses. In general, however, most practitioners consider the participation of the entire family in Shaligram puja to be vital to the health and prosperity of the household.

Shaiva Traditions

Protocols for puja as set out by ritual specialists at Pashupatinath Mandir (from principally Shaiva and Smarta traditions) in Kathmandu, Nepal incorporate a slightly different sequence: In Puja Vidhi, Shaligram is worshipped in the same way as one worships Lord Vishnu. Normally tulsi is used and also a conch shell (Shankh) is kept near the Shaligram. Daily worship with purity of heart and body is required to get full benefits from Shaligram. (Ref.: Shrimaddevi Bhagwat and Pashupatinath Mandir).

To perform puja of the Shaligram which you have selected to install in your altar of worship, you will need the following ‘samagri’ or ingredients: Ganga Jal (water from the Ganges River), Panchgavya (a mixture of 5 auspicious articles that include: cow dung, cow’s urine, milk, ghee and curd), fresh tulsi leaves, kusha grass, pipal leaves, incense sticks, camphor, sandal paste, a lamp burner, and a conch shell. You may substitute any item that is not available with uncooked rice. Offerings made to the Shaligram can also be of milk, fruits, flowers, sweet dishes or a coconut.

Puja:

  1. Sit in a position in which you can face the East or North-East direction.
  2. Wash the Shaligram with Ganga Jal poured from the conch shell. Then wash it again with Panchgavya, and then wash it once more with Ganga Jal.
  3. Place some kusha grass in a stainless-steel glass filled with water to sprinkle over the Shaligram.
  4. Now, put the Shaligram on some pipal leaves placed on a plate. Light the camphor, incense sticks, and the lamp filled with ghee.
  5. Apply some sandal paste on the Shaligram and place some fresh tulsi leaves in front of the Shaligram.
  6. Light the lamp and move it in a circular, clockwise movement of the hand in front of the Shaligram.
  7. Chant the Shaligram mantra nine times. Other mantras may be substituted according to tradition.
  8. Offer milk, fruits or sweets to the Shaligram. Offer some money and then give that money to a poor person.

If you are worshiping more than one Shaligram, make sure they are in even numbers. This means that you should have either two, four or six Shaligrams. Place a tulsi mala (garland) around them or offer fresh tulsi leaves everywhere. It is important to remember that even the water that has touched the Shaligram becomes ‘amrit’ (holy water), while you are bathing it, it takes on the properties of the Shaligram. If you drink this water, it is said to bring relief from various physical ailments and poor health.

Because each specific Shaligram is read and interpreted in different ways, most Shaligram practitioners consider it essential that a Shaligram be properly examined and identified before they are taken for worship. Characteristics of particular focus are the shape and color of the Shaligram, the number and location of chakra marks, the type of lines or grooves that are present in the crevices and fissures, or any other distinctive feature which may indicate the deity’s ultimate identity. (To wit: reading and interpreting Shaligrams is the subject of my next planned book).

Smarta Traditions and Panchayatana Puja

In Smarta Traditions, the practice of Panchayatana Puja consists of the worship of five deities set in a five-point cross pattern. As a rule, these five deities are Shiva, Vishnu, Devi or Durga, Surya, and an Ishta Devata (a term meaning one’s favorite or tutelary deity) such as GaneshaSkanda, or another god specific to the devotee’s practice. On rare occasions, an Ishta Devata may also be included as a sixth deity in the puja.

In Shaligram Panchayatana Puja, Shiva is often represented as a Linga stone from the Narmada river in India, the Devi/Shakti using a Srichakra (a Mandala-shaped quartz crystal or coin), and Ganesh, Vishnu, and Surya as Shaligrams. As per the tradition, any one of the represented deities can be placed in the center as the main or presiding deity. This deity is then the one who generally occupies a central role in the worship of the household and for whom the rest of the deities will be arranged around them (as is also mirrored in temple architecture from Odisha to Karnataka to Kashmir; and the temples containing fusion deities such as Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu)).

Theologically, the Smarta tradition emphasizes that all murti are icons of saguna Brahman, a means to realizing the abstract Ultimate Reality called nirguna Brahman. The five or six icons are then viewed by Smartas as multiple representations of the one saguna Brahman (meaning a personal God with material form), rather than as distinct beings in and of themselves. The ultimate goal in this practice is to transition past the use of icons, then follow a philosophical and meditative path to understanding the oneness of Atman (soul, self) and Brahman as infinite and immaterial.

Gaudiya Vaishnava and Hare Krishna Traditions

Finally, Sri Padmanabha Goswami’s “Śālagrāma-śila” (1993) details the puja sequence more common in the Gaudiya Vaishnava and Hare Krishna traditions. He begins by explaining that the worship of Shaligram is not different than the worship of any other installed deity and in any case where reverence or respect to a deity would be performed, so must it be performed for Shaligram, with individual attention paid to each shila present. He then goes on to say that the worship of Shaligrams should be “conducted in accordance with Purus͎a-sukta.” (1993: 32). If a devotee wishes to adorn a Shaligram with ornaments, this is acceptable but that an offering of rice should never be made (in contrast with the Sri Vaishnava tradition mentioned previously).

Women are allowed to worship Shaligrams openly in these traditions but should refrain from doing so during menstruation and finally, that the specific mantras one should recite vary depending on the Scriptural texts used and should be whatever mantras are most well-known to the initiated Vaishnava.

The sequence for puja and the offering of five items; gandha, pus͎pa, dhūpa, dipa, and naivedya (tulsi is always required) or sixteen items then commences as so (additional descriptions for each piece of the sequence given in the text, pgs. 33-39):

  1. Wake the Lord
  2. After the Lord has risen, chant idam pus͎panjali samarpayami and offer flowers.
  3. Asana (a seated posture) – while offering asana, chant idam asanam samarpayami
  4. Svagata (welcome) – while offering svagata, chant susvagatam, susvagatam
  5. Padya (poem, verse) – while offering padya, chant idam padyam samarpayami
  6. Arghya (libation) – while offering arghya, chant idam arghyam samarpayami
  7. Acamana (sipping water) – while offering acamana, chant idam acamaniyam samarpayami
  8. Madhuparka (honey and milk) – while offering madhuparka, chant idam madhuparka samarpayami
  9. Punaracamana (sipping water again) – while offering punaracamana, chant idam punaracamaniyam samarpayami
  10. Snana (bathing) – while offering snana, chant idam snaniyam samarpayami
  11. Vastra (clothing, or a cloth) – while offering vastra, chant idam vastram samarpayami
  12. Upavita (sacred thread) – while offering upavita, chant idam upavitam samarpayami
  13. Abhushana (ornaments, embellishments) – while offering abhushana, chant idam abhushanam samarpayami
  14. Gandha (fragrance) – while offering gandha, chant idam gandham samarpayami
  15. Tulasi (tulsi leaves) – while offering tulasi, chant idam tulasim samarpayami
  16. Pus͎pa (flowers) – while offering pus͎pa, chant idam pus͎pam samarpayami
  17. Dhupa (incense) – while offering dhupa, chant idam dhupam samarpayami
  18. Dipa (lamp) – while offering dipa, chant idam dipam samarpayami
  19. Naivedya (an offering to God; i.e., a promise, a willingness, etc.) – while offering naivedya, chant idam naivedyam samarpayami

Incidentally, he also mentions that the mantra: om yajneshvaraya yajnasabhavaya yajnapataye govindaya namo namah from Hari-bhakti-vilasa (15/530) also suffices for all steps from padya to dipa.

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A Shaligram is Born – Part 1

Witnessing the appearance of a Shaligram stone within the Kali Gandaki river is to, quite literally, witness its birth. Formed in the womb of the mountains (the Himalayas) and then brought into the world through the flow of the river Gandaki, Shaligrams are self-manifest as deities in ways quite unlike many of the other murti common throughout Hinduism, Buddhism, and Bon.

Previously, I have written at some length on the ways in which Shaligrams recreate cycles of karmic birth, death, and rebirth as well as how they continue to live literal lives with their human kin as members of the family and of the community. But as of yet, I have not written quite so extensively on the birth of Shaligrams such as takes place in the Muktinath Valley of Mustang, Nepal. For this reason, I am happy to do so here but I find it best to describe the births of Shaligram through two separate but related approaches. Therefore, my plan is to describe the process of Shaligram birth in two parts. The first part here will detail the story of Vrinda/Tulsi and Vishnu so as to convey the Scriptural foundations that underly the event of Shaligram’s appearance. The second part, to be posted later on, will discuss the methods of preparing a Shaligram to return home following pilgrimage so as to draw concrete links between the sacred contexts of Shaligram veneration and the actual practices devotees most commonly carry out.

The Water and the Mountain

According to the Varaha Purana (12th c. CE) some Shaligram stones come from the water (jalaja) while others come from the mountain-side (sthalaja). In common parlance, Shaligram devotees occasionally refer to these two categories as either water-born (jal) Shaligrams or mountain-born (kshetra) Shaligrams. In practice, “mountain Shaligrams” are the term typically given to the reddish-orange, raw, ammonite fossils which can be found slowly sliding down the river valley walls on their way into the Kali Gandaki River below. While many of these fossils can be easily obtained by walking the narrow village paths throughout the Baragaon, few, if any, Shaligram pilgrims ever actually seek them out and I never encountered any such fossils in the home altars or puja trays of active practitioners. Though they often agreed that such stones were holy and acknowledged that kshetra Shaligrams were included in the scriptural texts, I did not encounter a single religious use of such stones at any point in the years I have worked with Shaligram devotees. Only the smooth, black, formations of Shaligrams born out of the river are usually ever accepted for ritual use.

Besides the Shaligram origin accounts detailed in Puranic texts (mainly the Brahma Vaivarta, Agni, Padma, Garuda, Nrsimha, Skanda, Brahma, and Brahmanda Puranas), Shaligrams are also mentioned in a wide variety of other Hindu works (many of which are later commentaries or compilations of Puranic texts): the Shalagrama-mahatmya of the Gautamiya Tantra, the Shalagrama-pariksha in the Magh-mahatmya section of the Padma Purana, the Puja-prayoga, the Haribhaktivilasa of the Gopal Bhat͎t͎a, the Shalagramarcana-candrika, the Puja-pankaja-bhaskara, the Shalagrama-mimamsa of Somanatha-vyasa, the Shalagrama-lakshan͎a-panjika, the Shalagrama-pariksha of Anupa-simha, the Shalagrama-mula-lakshana-paddhati, the Shalagrama-shila-parikshana-paddhati, and an entire section of the Vaishnavanidhi chapter in Maharaj Krishnaraj Wodeyar III of Mysore’s Sri-tattva-nidhi. Many of these later texts advocate for the worship of Shaligrams as a method for obtaining material benefits such as great wealth, numerous children, success in business ventures, healthy herds of cattle, and a long and healthy life.

Some Hindu theologians, however, view Shaligram veneration as a “kamya,” an optional form of ritual worship based on the desires of the practitioners in question and therefore not obligatory for all Hindus. While this concept is largely shared among the attitudes of current Shaligram devotees (that the practice is optional), few, if any, view the ritual worship of Shaligrams as specific to desires for material goods. Rather, the worship of Shaligrams is more commonly associated with religious tradition, family history, and movement across sacred landscapes than the fulfillment of any specific day to day desire. Shaligram devotees therefore tend to follow the approach of the Skanda Purana which advocates Shaligram worship for anyone wishing to perform service or austerities as a way of entering into a relationship with the divine. And it is here that our story begins.

Tulsi and Shaligram

As related in the Padma Purana, there was once a massive and deeply destructive battle that took place between Lord Shiva and the demon Jalandhar. This battle raged on for several days, neither Shiva nor the demon showing any signs of winning due, in this version of the story, to the power of Jalandhar’s pious wife Brinda. In the Vishnu Purana, Shiva then requested help from Lord Vishnu. As the battle between the demon and Shiva continued, Vishnu took on a duplicate form of Jalandhar and went to Brinda’s home. Subsequently, as Vishnu broke Brinda’s long-held chastity while in the duplicate form of her husband Jalandhar, Brinda’s power, her pativrata or sati dharma, was unable to protect her husband and Shiva was finally able to kill Jalandhar in the battle. As a result of this, Brinda became very angry and cursed Vishnu to take the form of a stone, of grass, and of a tree. It is for this reason then that Vishnu came down to earth to become Shaligram (stone), kush (holy grass), and the Pipal tree.

In the Padma Purana, the events have a slightly different outcome but the course of the narrative is not particularly divergent. In this account, Vishnu is actually infatuated with Brinda and, because of this, the gods Agni, Brahma, and Shiva decide to approach Maya, the divine manifestation of illusion and concealment. Maya, in turn, directs them to three of her representatives: Gauri (rajas), Lakshmi (sattva), and Svadha (tamas) who give the gods three seeds with instructions to sow them in the place where Vishnu dwells. When the seeds were sown, three plants sprouted: dhatri (Umblica officialis), malati (Linum usitatissimum), and tulasi (Ocimum sanctum). These three plants were then considered aspects (amshas) of Svadha, Lakshmi, and Gauri respectively but it is otherwise unclear precisely what this variation has to do with the origins of Shaligrams other than to emphasize that Shaligram and tulsi plants are strongly associated in worship.

In the Brahma Vaivarta Purana version of this story (and in 9th skanda of the Devibhagavata), the part of Brinda is actually subsumed by the goddess Tulasi (tulsi). This account explains that there was once a daughter of King Dharmadhvaja and his queen Madhavi who was both a beautiful princess and an incarnation of the hladhini-shakti, the internal pleasure potency and creative power of the universe (and specifically of the Godhead). When this daughter was born, she was said to have been marked with unusual good fortune and as she matured into an exquisitely beautiful young woman, she never appeared to age beyond sixteen years. As the manifestation of universal divine qualities and blessed with incomparable beauty, she was thus called Tulasi (meaning: matchless). Accordingly, when Vishnu then wanted to perform his lilas (sacred past-times) on earth, he was obliged to do so only in the association of his personal potencies; the potency in this case being that of Vishnu’s divine pleasure (hladhini) called Tulasi. (In the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, this particular manifestation is taken over by Sri Krishna and his hladhini who is manifest as his consort Srimati Radharani, who is also the goddess of fortune).

When Vishnu (or Krishna) then descend into the mundane world as avatara to perform their past-times or undertake acts of heroism, their hladhini manifests along with them. In many Hindu traditions, these expansions that accompany the avatars of Vishnu are sometimes called Lakshmis and the princess Tulasi who was born as the daughter of King Dharmadhvaja and Queen Madhavi is also considered an incarnation of Lakshmi, consort of Vishnu and the principal goddess of fortune. Finally, in the Devibhagavata, it is noted that Tulasi’s incarnation on earth is actually due to the jealousy of Radha (Krishna’s principal consort) who became very angry with Tulasi while in Goloka (the Vaishnava paradise) because Krishna had become overly fond of her (non-Puranic accounts sometimes explain that it is Lakshmi who curses Tulasi to become a plant because Tulasi longs to have Vishnu as her husband. Vishnu then joins with Tulasi as a Shaligram stone).

As the story continues in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, it is by the machinations of the karmic cycle that Tulasi is wedded to Sankhacuda, a powerful demon (subsuming here the role of Jalandhar). As fate would have it, Sankhacuda had also received an earlier boon from Lord Brahma to obtain Tulasi as his wife and, having done so, would remain undefeated in battle as long as she remained chaste to him. Taking full advantage of Brahma’s boon, Sankhacuda began to terrorize the world and all the demigods as he desired to do. Being severely afflicted by his attacks, the demigods then approached Shiva for protection. Shiva himself then went to fight with Sankhacuda, but due to Tulasi’s faithfulness, Shiva was unable to kill him regardless of what he tried. The demigods then fell into despair but Vishnu (naturally) devised a plan to spoil Tulasi and render the demon vulnerable. While Shiva continued to engage Sankhacuda in combat, Vishnu went to the both of them first in the guise of a brahmana to beg charity from Sankhacuda. Standing before Sankhacuda, the brahmana requested, “My dear Sankhacuda, famous throughout the three worlds as the giver of whatever one desires, please give me your kavaca (armor) in charity.” Knowing that it was the chastity of his wife, Tulasi, that protected him, Sankhacuda unhesitatingly gave the brahmana his armor in charity and resumed his fight with Shiva.

Now dressed in Sankhacuda’s armor, Vishnu went immediately to the palace where Tulasi was waiting news of the battle’s outcome. Thinking that her husband had returned from the fight to regain his strength, Tulasi welcomed him to the bed chamber for a rest. Thus, the night passed and the faithfulness of Tulasi was broken by Vishnu’s deceit, and at that moment Sankhacuda was slain by Shiva in the battle that had also continued throughout the night. When Tulasi realized that the Sankhacuda she had slept with was actually Vishnu and not her husband and that Sankhacuda had been killed by Shiva, Tulasi levied her curse against Vishnu: “By deceiving me, you have broken my chastity and killed my husband. Only one whose heart is like stone could do such a thing. Thus, I curse you to remain on earth as a stone!”

Accepting Tulasi’s curse, Vishnu replied, “For many years you underwent very difficult penances to achieve me as your husband. At the same time, Sankhacuda also performed penances to get you as his wife. As a result of a boon from Lord Brahma, the desire of Sankhacuda was fulfilled. Now that Sankhacuda has left this mortal world and gone to the spiritual world, your desire to have me as your husband will be fulfilled. Give up this body, and let your spirit be merged in Lakshmi’s, so that I am always with you. This body of yours will be transformed into a river, which will become sacred and celebrated as Gandaki, and from your beautiful hair will grow millions of small trees that will be known as Tulasi. These trees will be held sacred by all my devotees. Furthermore, to fulfill your curse, I will become many stones (shaligram shilas) and will always live on the banks of the Gandaki River. Thus, Tulasi was transformed and appeared as both the Gandaki River and as the sacred plant tulsi. Vishnu then came into the world as Shaligram, born in the waters and on the banks of the Gandaki. At this point, the Brahma Vaivarta Purana also mentions that Sankhacuda, though a demon in his last manifestation, was also an eternal associate of Krishna by the name of Sudama who manifested in the world as a demon so as to assist these events in coming about.

In most cases, the popularity of this version of the story owes its fame to the Marriage of Tulsi and Shaligram (Tulsi Vivah), a festival that takes place throughout India and Nepal on the eleventh lunar day of the Hindu month of Kartik (October/November). What all three variations of this story provide, however, is the links between the chastity-deceit-curse version of the Shaligram story and the literal and metaphorical birth of Shaligrams out of the landscape. To some degree, the variability in the story likely has to do with narrative blending in both Vaishnava and Shaiva traditions of Shaligrams veneration where both Vishnu and Shiva are said to play distinctly important roles in the formation of the Kali Gandaki River and of the Shaligrams within it. Furthermore, for many Shaiva and Smarta Shaligram practitioners, the implicit association of Shaligrams directly with Vishnu is not always accepted, noting for example the many instances where Shiva mentions the worship of Shaligrams in the Skanda Purana or the particular quote in the Padma Purana where Shiva himself states:

My devotees who offer obeisances to the shalagrama even negligently become fearless. Those who adore me while making a distinction between myself and Lord Hari will become free from this offence by offering obeisances to shalagrama. Those who think themselves as my devotees, but who are proud and do not offer obeisances to my Lord Vasudeva, are actually sinful and not my devotees. O my son, I always reside in the shalagrama. Being pleased with my devotion the Lord has given me a residence in His personal abode. Giving a shalagrama, is the best form of charity, being equal to the result of donating the entire earth together with its forests, mountains, and all.

For Vaishnavas (particularly Gaudiya Vaishnavas), there is an additional reference to offering Tulasi leaves to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (9.26):

patram puspam phalam toyam yo me bhaktya prayacchati
tad aham bhakty-upahrtamasnami prayatatmanah

(If my devotee offers me with devotion, a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, I will accept it).

According to several current Vaishnava acaryas (spiritual masters), the patram (leaf) mentioned in this verse particularly refers to the tulsi leaf. Tulsi leaves are also mentioned in the Garuda Purana and in the Brhan-naradiya Purana, which state that the worship of Vishnu without tulsi leaves is incomplete and is unlikely to be accepted by Vishnu as proper veneration: “Without Tulasi, anything done in the way of worship, bathing, and offering of food and drink to Vishnu (Krishna) cannot be considered real worship, bathing, or offering. Vishnu does not accept any worship or eat or drink anything that is without Tulasi.”

A Mountain Shaligram (kshetra) on the left. A River Shaligram (jal) on the right.
A Shaligram is born from the river! (Sudarshan Shaligram)